Character Details: Show the Little Stuff

Author: Anastasia V. Pergakis // Category:


All this week I've been blogging about getting to really know your characters. During this process, you will surely learn a little about their mannerisms and quirks. But how to convey that in the story?

While reviewing assignments from the novel students in the Writer's Academy, I love it when there is a random twitch, nervous habit, or just tiny movement. It may not have anything to do with the plot perse, but it has everything to do with the character and how they feel at that moment.

People watching is a good way to learn about odd movements and twitches that people do. Girls twirl their hair, chew their nails, fiddle with their wedding rings, etc. Guys rub their beards in thought, clench their fists, pop their knuckles, etc.

Putting in little movements like that really enhance a story and a scene. This goes with the "show don't tell" adage. How would you tell that a person is nervous without saying "She was nervous." Nail biting? Wringing hands? I rub my palms and bite my bottom lip when I'm nervous. A friend of mine flicks his wrist (though it looks like he's adjusting his watch). Another friend switches her weight from one foot to the other.

Then of course there is just showing what your characters look like, but without making a list of their stats. "She tossed her blonde hair over her shoulder." "He ran his fingers through his dark hair." "His green sparkled with mischief." This puts in an action AND a character detail. I have rarely seen a listing of stats done well. I think the only time I really liked it and it made sense was one character, a spy of some sort, was sizing up the girl. So in his mind, he would calculate it by stats. But not all characters are spys or cops, running stats in their head about the people they meet. (Heck not even cops and spys do this all the time anyway.)

Another thing to remember, is to have your characters seperate from each other. Even if two characters have blue eyes are they exactly the same blue? How would you describe them differently so that in the readers mind, you really do have two unique individuals? My husband and I both have brown eyes, but his are dark like chocolate while mine have a tinge of orange to them (arranged in flames around my pupil, pretty awesome looking if I do say so myself...) Both my son and my daughter have blue eyes, but hers are light, and my sons are stormy grey/blue. This goes with all descriptions - hair, height, clothing, skin color, etc. Indentical twins still have that one aspect different from each other.

Again, the key here is not just list the characters stats all at once. Throw it by another character's observing, action, or even emotion. Have an internal monologue where the character is comparing her/himself to another.

Then, once you introduce the fact that your character has long, silky, red curls - throw that in again later on. Remind the reader. Have the character toss her hair over her shoulder or pull it back into a pony tail. What do other people think of her hair? It doesn't need to be the forefront of course (unless your story really is about her hair) but throw it in every once in a while to remind the reader what the character looks like.

What nervous habits or odd quirks do your characters have? Rosyani clenches her fist at her side quite a bit and she also has a habit of hugging herself. Her husband Drache crosses his arms a lot and rubs his forehead. You might think these are signs of stress but in truth, both characters do that for comfort and a feeling of safety. What about your characters? What little action do they do often?

9 Responses to "Character Details: Show the Little Stuff"

Erica Chapman Says :
April 7, 2010 at 1:09 AM

Great post!

I think these little things are very important. I try to weave them in. I really hate reading a list, in fact, I skim over them, so I make sure I don't do that in mine ;o)

Harley D. Palmer Says :
April 7, 2010 at 11:16 AM

Same here Erica. It is really important to me especially since I write Fantasy. I can't just say things or objects and expect readers to know what they look like. (Like a car, blue jeans, t-shirt, etc) But I try really hard to not turn it into a list of stats about a location or object.

Harley D. Palmer Says :
April 7, 2010 at 11:34 AM

Wow! Thanks Ann!! I'll have the last one tomorrow about "Naming your Characters"! I can't necessarily keep to a schedule but I do want to start having "themes" for each week for at least a little bit more organization. LOL

E. Elle Says :
April 7, 2010 at 3:02 PM

Great post.

In my first novel, my female MC blushed a lot. My male MC rambled and ran both hands through his hair.

In my current WIP, I haven't noticed anything they always seem to do. But I'm sure I will soon enough; they're pretty cooperative.

Harley D. Palmer Says :
April 7, 2010 at 9:06 PM

Cooperative character!? Where I can find some of those!?

Jay Says :
April 7, 2010 at 9:16 PM

I love this post, Harley. In my last book, the protag - Elliot, clenched his fingers whenever he was feeling tense. As in, over and over.

In my WIP, my protag fingers a yellow stone attached to a black rope on his neck.

I love these little tendencies!

Medeia Sharif Says :
April 8, 2010 at 1:27 AM

Great post. I do my best in taking note of character nuances, and then rehashing them throughout the story. Features and gestures become strongly associated with my characters.

Dawn Embers Says :
April 8, 2010 at 5:39 AM

Indeed, good post. I try to have something, and not the common or cliche though on the occasion a character will have a common twitch or nervous habit. Noah has been the easiest to have something that is different since he controls electricity. So, he plays with it sometimes, when he's nervous and around people who know/won't cause drama over the fact. It's harder for him when he's nervous and trying to hid the fact he's a mutant.

Love all these character posts and can't wait to see the other themes you come up with.

Harley D. Palmer Says :
April 8, 2010 at 8:32 PM

Yea Dawn. I figured if I can't stick to rigid daily schedule I could at least go with themed weeks! It seems to have worked really well this week, so we'll keep going with it. Got blogfest stuff this weekend, so now I need to figure out what to do next week!

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